The Family Ties That Bind, and the Greatest Grilled Cheese Ever

 

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Aunt Carmel, center, with my great grandmother Maria, and family friend Maria Commis

If you’ve been with me on this journey somewhere over these 130+ blog posts, you’re intimately familiar with my thoughts, and the specific love and admiration I have for all things family.

You’ve met the individuals who I consider the titans of our little tribe, many of them more than once: my Nonna, who arguably is the reason I started putting my fingers to a keyboard. My great aunt, also my godmother, dubbed the “Last Sicilian.” You’ve met Dominick a number of times, as well as Mariano and Antonio.

All amazing people, with equally amazing stories, that I feel compelled to share with you.

But there is one glaring omission: one that has gone for far too long and needs to be rectified.

This sin of omission happens, perhaps, for the lack of key memories. This family figure passed away when I was just a boy, not even yet a teenager.

I called her Aunt Carmel, but Carmela Tagliarini Prezio was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who came here with her sisters as part of the immigration wave of Southern Italians and Sicilians to this country.

Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.

My “Aunt Carmel” had such a giant personality and family care taking instincts that she had a chance to supplant her sisters, my grandmother and godmother, as being my favorite. She just left us a little too soon to find out.2386CD98-AD99-461C-8DB6-E6ED78E53819

Her story (and their story) emigrating to the wintry slop of New York from sunny Sicily, is a dramatic one. Although I believe the connection between Italians and organized crime is an overblown stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood cinema, a true crime story was happening in Sicily to drive my grandmother’s family out.

My great-grandfather, Calogero, was running a warehouse for the government in Sicily. The local branch of organized crime targeted him as a revenue source, which he had no interest in complying with. The situation became more extreme with a warning gunshot to my great grandfather’s foot, and the future decision was made to flee Sicily when they could.

Aunt Carmel was like many other Sicilian immigrants: hard working, entrenched in her faith, and centered around family. There were mighty struggles, and good times, throughout her life. Her husband, Anthony Prezio, carved his path as one of our family’s first entrepreneurs (and restaurant owners) after holding a series of jobs.

If you’re familiar with immigration history, many of those that came to America (Irish and Italians included) were offered only the most menial, sometimes dangerous, manual labor jobs.

For some Italians, the only way for upward mobility was to start a business, in an attempt to control their own destiny.

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Celebrating life and love with family

My connection with Aunt Carmel was a close one, as the family was tight knit, living on the same block on the same street, as many immigrants were to do. My grandmother lived directly across the street, so us kids would bounce back and forth between houses as necessary.

The most consistent memory of my aunt was as I was coming home from elementary school for lunch, stopping at her house to be fed. Since my parents and grandparents were working outside the home, Carmela invited me into her’s for many wonderful meals.

Her specialty  was a toasted cheese sandwich: not a grilled cheese, mind you, but a cheese sandwich made crunchy and melty within an actual toaster oven. Fantastic.

Being the spoiled child that I was (remember, I had more than a couple of Sicilians to provide meals, making sure I was well fed) I remember asking her if we could have something else after a long succession of lunch time toasted cheese.

Looking back on my adolescent complaint of “toasted cheese, again?”, I would love to travel back in time, just to have one more of those sandwiches.

But the sandwich is only symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

To my younger self, that sandwich meant comfort, safety, security. A place to turn where there was nowhere else to go, however temporarily.

Carmela, along with her sisters Rose and Nicolina, represented all that was right with the world. Whatever trivial matters could go wrong in the life of an adolescent me, they were the port of refuge that provided that comfort and security.

And that was the ladies. The men, once they came home, reinforced it all.

It’s said we are a country divided, here in 2020. It’s thought very few of us can be trusted, and we’ll need those sources of comfort and security to believe that, as in the early 70’s at Carmela Prezio’s kitchen table, “all is right with the world.”

More than that, reflection on the generosity, faith, and kindness they all displayed instill in me the belief that we aren’t really divided at all: just a little lost, and trying to find our way.

Aunt Carmel passed away when I was only 12 years old, so our relationship never really had a chance to blossom fully, but we are kindred spirits even now as she enjoyed writing her thoughts down as much as I do. And her sisters were the gift to me that kept on giving.

It’s with the memory of their guidance that I use to find myself, each and every day.

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In Praise of the Table Setters

As a guy at the age of 54, I’m finding it hard to keep up with the boundless, almost frenetic energy of my seventeen year old son. I use it to try to recapture a little youthful exuberance for myself, but there are limits.

YoungPopI see my son’s face etched into the decades old photographs of my grandfather, and I wonder how similar they are. I wonder what they share, and how they are different.

One thing’s for sure – their journeys at this age are radical in that difference. While my son readies for senior year and acting as captain of his golf team, his great grandfather was getting ready for, or taking, a trip that would change his life.

And ours.

Did he have that same youthful exuberance so many years ago, or was he the stoic and silent man I knew when I was growing up?

Why did his family leave their native southern Italy? Was it poverty? Crime? The remnants of a “unification” that was more aggression than unifying act?

Was he a scared teenager? Or did he share his family’s fire to seek a better life?

Did he have any lira in his pocket? Or was he poorer than poor? Was his dress tattered? Did he have warm clothes?

Did he go hungry while on the ship? Thirsty?

When the Statue of Liberty finally came into view, what was the emotion in his heart? Fear – or hope?

How much English could he speak? If any at all?

My father told me, years later, when he was young and driving my grandfather to pick up other relatives coming to America, he could guide my Dad down New York City side streets like he lived there forever – but he never drove a car.

How could he do that?

For me, it’s just not my curiosity – but an appreciation of the struggles and hardships of being a young immigrant to a country that was not exactly accepting.

You may not have heard about it before – but what an amazing life.

When you look at success, or how it’s defined now – such as our family’s success, that ranges between moderate and luxurious depending on the situation – you must give the credit where the credit is due.

To the table setters.

There is no such thing as a “self made man,” and we do not live in a vacuum. Our lives, and what we decide to make of them, were made possible by a table set so long ago. We are the sum of the struggles and the power of our recent past.

He had help from our entire extended family – but my grandfather’s relentless nature proved to be a godsend for all of us.

On a day that’s good for me – when I’m feeling healthy, have money in my pocket, with a future looking bright enough to don the sunglasses – I silently thank the table setters.

On an even better day, I’ll take a ride and stop by St. Mary’s cemetery. To say “thank you” in person. To those who made it all possible. Table setters.

I dabble in my family’s history. On my wife’s side, her aunt Connie Burkart was the expert family historian. If you needed to know something, you asked Connie. I will miss her praise, and words of love and encouragement whenever I posted here. This one’s for you, Connie.

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